An Age Ago

Here’s a review I wrote of an anthology of 19th century Russian verse entitled ‘An Age Ago’, which has a very fine introduction by Joseph Brodsky. Who taught himself English as a lad in Soviet Leningrad, by the way, and later escaped to the West and ended up poet laureate of the United States. So you see that many things are quite possible.  


The eleven poets assembled, voices pitched to sing, in the pages of this anthology, compose a choir of all the heavyweights of Russia’s golden age of verse. A couple of them, like Pushkin and Lermontov, will already be familiar to even cursory cataloguers of Slavic literature. Most of the rest, the silver-throated Tyutchev, for example, or the fervent Fet, will be unused to the shelves of English-speaking libraries, places where they are seldom known to dwell, except perhaps as dusty refugees from some emigré uncle’s Petersburg pad, some Moscow grandmother’s birch-line boudoir. And this is a shame, since these poets, in their native land, once trilled (and for many still do) like the most inspired of larks across the yet unpolluted skies of a shimmering if at times quite shocking Russia. Perhaps this book of translations will do its part to alleviate that situation. Because the poems themselves, Englished in Alan Myers’ translation, have a lyric quality and rhythm and meter which are rather eerily reminiscent of the immortal originals. This in itself is enough to warrant a careful reading of the texts. But the best thing about this collection, it must be said, is Joseph Brodsky’s introduction, surprising as the sudden arrival of a thunderstorm on a cloudless summer day. In it he describes for us the 19th century which produced these voices and compares it to our own. If we do not seem to come out ahead, let that be a lesson! Perhaps Brodsky’s remarks are meant not so much to be a kind of mirror in which we might be tempted to do what we do best, but a clarifying lens for better viewing what has gone before. And what would that be, we might wonder? A century born when people our grandparents knew were children, and which died before Queen Victoria drank her last cup of tea in a Europe over which only birds, clouds and hearts had ever flown.


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